PDFs require special attention to ensure that they are accessible for all users. For a comprehensive step-by-step process of creating accessible PDFs, see California State University’s guide to creating accessible PDFs and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs tutorial on creating accessible PDFs.
Note: It is recommended to avoid or minimize use of PDFs because of the difficulty with adhering to compliance regulations. For a list of alternatives to PDFs see below for Penn State’s accessibility guidelines.
Scanned PDFs are a compilation of images, therefore they are unreadable to most standard screen readers. When scanning a document to PDF, use Optical Character Recognition. OCRs specify where the text is on the page. Once a document is either converted or scanned into a PDF, the AA guidelines recommend the following basic precautions:
- Correct alternative text used for all tables and images. Complex images should have descriptive captions next to the image.
- Correct tags for all aspects of the document. Since PDFs are formatted as images, content needs to be manually tagged in order to specify to the screen readers where the content is on the page. To create and edit tags use a PDF editor such as Adobe Acrobat* (see resource 1 for a tutorial on tagging and resource 4.b for detailed tag requirements)
- Document filename should not contain spaces or special characters
- Track changes and comments should be removed and turned off
- Include bookmarks in PDFs longer than 9 pages
- Decorative images should be tagged as background or archived
- Tables aren’t manually made with tabs, they are made through the table option. They should be read from left to right, top to bottom. They have headers for each row and column that repeat if table extends to another page. There are no blank cells. Table cells are designated as data cells.
- Try to avoid uploading documents with multiple columns of text as screen readers may read across the columns.
- Run the document through an accessibility checker to make sure it is read correctly. It is important to provide a non-PDF version of the document whenever possible. The regulations listed are the minimum requirements. Please look through resources to advance the accessibility of your PDFs.
*Adobe Acrobat is widely used to create accessible PDFs. Without a PDF editor program, it may be impossible to create and edit the tags needed to adhere to AA guidelines. Alternatives to Acrobat may provide the appropriate editing features at a lower price, however they do not have accessibility tutorials.
PDF Fillable Forms
Adobe Acrobat and other PDF software allow users to create fillable PDF forms. Creating accessible forms requires extra work to ensure compliance with accessibility requirements. Both the California State University’s guide to creating accessible PDFs and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs tutorial on creating accessible PDFs contain information and best practices for creating accessible PDF forms. You can also reference Web AIM’s article on Accessible Forms in Acrobat XI.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs tutorial on creating accessible PDFs. An in-depth tutorial to ensure section 508 compliance when creating PDFs.
- California State University’s guide to creating accessible PDFs. A comprehensive guide to creating accessible PDFs.
- Penn State Accessibility. Great explanation of the difficulties of PDF accessibility and recommendations for alternative forms of presenting PDF info on a website.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Documentation on requirements for PDF accessibility.
- WebAIM PDF Accessibility articles. 4-part article series on creating accessible PDFs and PDF forms using Acrobat
- Accessibility Checker for Windows. The built-in Accessibility Checker tool finds accessibility issues in your Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Outlook emails, and PowerPoint presentations.
Websites or software that convert PDFs to be AA-compliant
- Adobe PDF accessibility overview
- CommonLook accessibility verification and remediation services
- PDF repair resources
- Resources for converting PDFs to other file formats